Dutson: Birds of Melanesia
by Rick Wright
Few even are the birders who, on hearing a mention of Melanesia, can confidently put their fingers on the map. Fewer still are the birders who will actually get to visit this vast stretch of tropical islands, extending from New Guinea to Fiji off the northern and eastern coast of Australia.
Whether we know where they are or not, however, those islands have been the site of monumental research into avian distribution and speciation, conducted over more than a century by some of the world's most important biologists and evolutionary theorists; at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we cannot think about birds without thinking--at whatever remove--about the work done by such scholars as Ernst Mayr and Jared Diamond, whose 2001 book The Birds of Northern Melanesia was called by David Bishop "the single most important publication on evolutionary biology since Darwin's."
The results of all that island evolution are on handsome display in this splendid new guide from Princeton University Press. I'm fairly sure that I'll never get to Melanesia, but after reading Guy Dutson's work--and relishing the fine illustrations by Richard Allen, Adam Bowley, John Cox, and Tony Disley--I'm inspired to try.
The guide covers the birds of fourteen island groups belonging to four nations. Given the high rates of endemism and the pronounced geographic variation shown by many species, this could have been a nightmare of book design; but the challenge is elegantly met here. A careful reading of the front matter's explanation and a little practice was all it took to unlock the clever system of color-coded distribution bars, which not only show which island groups are inhabited by a given species but also reveal its status as an endemic, a resident, a regular migrant or vagrant, an introduced species, or extinct. All this information is provided both on the caption pages of the plates and in a convenient tabular checklist, making it easy for the lucky birder to prepare for a trip to one or the other of the islands.
The guide comprises two sections, one containing 86 beautiful plates with their facing-page captions and distribution charts, the other the species accounts. The texts are headed with the species' English, French, and scientific names, often with notes indicating different taxonomic approaches, and include a description, an often extensive treatment of similar species, voice descriptions, accounts of habit and habitat often including flight style, a statement of each bird's conservation status, and a detailed (often island-by-island) summary of geographic distribution.
Melanesia as defined here covers some 42,000 square miles. To minimize page flipping, the guide's passerine plates are broken into seven color-coded sections, one for each of the major island groups included. Thus, the birder visiting New Caledonia and confronted with an unfamiliar songbird has to consult only five plates, the visitor to the Bismarcks 11, and so on; the non-passerines, many of which, especially the water birds, are widely distributed among the islands, occupy the first 49 plates. There is necessarily some repetition in the case of species occurring across several island groups, but the artists and the designer have taken this as an opportunity to display regional variation in several species; have a look, for example, at the various Island Thrushes or the Cardinal Myzomelas, some of which differ strikingly from their counterparts on other islands.
In addition to the usual habitat descriptions, regional maps, and conservation discussion, the guide's introductory material includes a dozen pages on birding Melanesia, with practical tips for finding birds on 20 islands and island groups; one gets an unvarnished sense of just how difficult, even dangerous many of these sites are to visit.
The book is refreshingly well edited and proofread, the only major goof the English names given Tachybaptus novaehollandiae at the top of Plate I. (It should be Australasian Grebe.) It's a pleasure to leaf through this guide, which serves very well indeed the author's and artists' intention to "stimulate the study and conservation" of the beautiful birds of a remote and alluring part of the globe.